Neymar. Sterling. Lewandowski. There have been some high profile departures from house Swoosh over the last six months, so should this be cause for concern for the American giants, or is it simply a new business strategy in what are undoubtedly unprecedented times?
Nike is one of the biggest brands in the footballing world, able to boast roster packed full of the best teams and players in the world, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo signed on as a lifetime ambassador. But this year has surprisingly seen some big names turning their backs and leaving the Swoosh. While it’s inevitable that every brand will experience a shift in players as contracts end, the recent departures feel like something more, with Nike almost appearing to be in a state of flux. So what could the reasons for this change be?
Before we go any further, lets address the fact that Robert Lewandowski hasn’t actually been confirmed as having left Nike. Yet. The Bayern hitman has been playing in the ‘Future DNA’ Nike Phantom VNM boot in recent months, a silo that has since been replaced by the Phantom GT. The fact that Lewandowski hasn’t made the switch into Nike’s latest boot, instead sticking with a model that has been retired, raised eyebrows and started the speculation.
Now, it could simply be that he favours the Phantom VNM and isn’t yet ready to say goodbye to it (with that outstanding iconic 2002 Nike Air Zoom Total 90 II homage wrap we wouldn’t blame him). Equally, after what has been one of the Pole’s most successful seasons ever, it may simply be a case of superstition. But the sight of him in a blacked out PUMA Ultra 1.1 in training recently simply added fuel to the fire that he may be set to leave Nike. While we wait for that one to play out, however, there have been two confirmed big name departures, along with a host of other players.
As the season got underway, Neymar unsurprisingly stole the headlines with news that he was set to leave Nike to sign for PUMA after a 15-year association with the Swoosh. It was big news. So how and why did it happen? Why did Nike let him go? The simple answer is probably money. Neymar wanted lots, and Nike were only willing to give so much. As his move from Barcelona to PSG suggested, the Brazilian does not like to play second fiddle to anyone, and at PUMA he knew that he could be the main man, whereas at Nike, he would always be in the shadow of Ronaldo, while watching on as his PSG teammate Mbappe was positioned to inherit the throne.
So while Nike would have wanted him to stay, his departure was not the end of their world … far from it. They will have looked at the financial implications, combined with the fact that Neymar is not getting any younger, and they will have made their decision. And they’ve not looked back since, for that’s not in the brand’s DNA.
The Raheem Sterling situation is a more interesting case though. This is a young man just coming into his prime with the world at his feet, marketable both as a top player but also as a spokesperson for some of the most socially important topics. Prior to the end of his contract earlier this year, you could see that he was being leveraged accordingly by Nike, fronting ads and campaigns and looking like a main piece in their puzzle. But despite early reports of a record deal with Nike, reports started to emerge that all was not well with negotiations, and other brands began to circle.
Was this a case of money again? It’s possible, but Sterling has not rushed into signing a new contract, instead biding his time and only now seeming to settle on the surprise package that is New Balance, having been seen wearing what appears to be a prototype whiteout pair of Furon’s in recent weeks. Again, nothing confirmed there, but with spare money from the end of their Liverpool and Celtic deals, it makes sense that they’d try to strengthen their on-pitch representation.
So that accounts for the big three departures (potential in Lewandowski’s case), but add to those the likes of promising talent Harvey Elliot, Joe Gomez, Kyle Walker, Ederson and Tanguy Nbombele to name but a few from the Premier League alone, and it starts to seem like more than just a simple shift of players.
One possibility is the impact of the current pandemic. COVID-19 is having a huge financial effect on the whole world, with even the biggest companies feeling the pinch in one way or another. So it’s possible that Nike have looked to tighten the purse strings, streamlining their budget where possible, trimming off the fat, so to speak. While that may be a possibility, affecting certain deals, it’s unlikely to be the sole reason for the shake up.
Another reason could be the additional investment in another premium team in Liverpool, with whom Nike have just started a new contract. You can guarantee that that wouldn’t have come cheap, and budgets will have had to be tweaked to take account of that deal.
What’s more likely is a strategic approach, manoeuvring the younger generation into a prime position. They already have Mbappe as one of their leading assets, but they’ve recently moved players like Jadon Sancho into a more prominent role, gifting him his own signature line at the tender age of just 20, making him the youngest player to ever get such an honour.
Add to him the likes of Ansu Fati and Vinicius Jr. – two of the hottest young prospects at two of the world’s biggest clubs in Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, both of whom have recently been promoted to the Dream Speed ranks that were previously reserved for the royalty that is Ronaldo, Mbappe and Kerr – Frankie De Jong, Kai Havertz, and Rodrygo to name but a few, and you can see a new wave of talent just waiting to explode. This ties in with the age of social media that we live in today; everything moves so quickly that you have to stay one step ahead.
It’s all about foresight, predicting where these players will be over the course of the next five years. Sure, Lewandowski is a world-class striker, possibly the best in the world right now, but he won’t be in five years. Counter him with Erling Haaland – another player promoted to the Dream Speed ranks recently – and you can see Nike’s intelligent forecasting and moving. If he continues to develop at the startling rate that he currently is, Haaland will be a world beater in no time. The same could be said with Sterling and Sancho; with the Dortmund man, Nike already have a ready made replacement for Sterling. Or if you’re looking for a political spokesperson, they also have Marcus Rashford. Sure they would’ve loved to have kept the services of Sterling, Sancho and Rashford but if they had to lose one, then they made their decision. Nike may well be in a state of flux right now, accentuated by the fact that three big names are departing at roughly the same time, but these are calculated losses, thought through and planned to perfection.
Seeing three players such as Lewandowski, Neymar and Sterling all seemingly jumping ship is bound to ring alarm bells to those outside looking in, and that’s when you start noticing all the other players leaving that you wouldn’t otherwise blink an eye at. It makes it seem like there’s a problem when in reality there really isn’t. If money wasn’t an issue, then Nike would probably keep as many players as possible, but ultimately it’s all about the marketability of players – who’s going to help sell boots. It’s about not going stale, refreshing the ranks, and it’s an art that Nike have perfected over the years. Look at Nike’s roster now and say hello to the future of the game.